‘A manifestation and reminder of this systematic violence exercised against people.’ These were the words of artist Banu Cennetoğlu, in a joint statement with the Liverpool Biennial and NGO network UNITED for Intercultural Action, to describe and justify leaving the tattered remains of The List on display, rather than reinstating the work for a second time. The List documents the thousands of migrants who have died attempting to enter Europe, from 1993 up to the present day. The recorded number stands at 34,361 people, with the real figure likely higher, and the work was installed in July as a series of posters on Great George Street in Liverpool as part of the 2018 Liverpool Biennial. Since its installation, The List has now been torn down twice. The work has been shown in other cities and never been damaged, Cennetoğlu said.
After the first incident, various rumours made the rounds in the absence of any concrete evidence: from reports of ‘people in suits’ tearing the posters down, to the city council absent-mindedly removing the work, something which was categorically denied by a council spokesman in a statement to The Guardian. While the perpetrators and their reasons are still unknown, the repeated act of vandalism in mid-August strongly implies that this is a targeted, politically-motivated attack.
That this should happen in Liverpool, as it celebrates the 10th anniversary of being named European Capital of Culture in 2008, is damning for the city’s reputation as a liberal, inclusive city, one known for its left-wing activist streak. This is after all, a city in which close to 60% voted in favour to remain in the Brexit referendum, defying the Leave campaign’s anti-migrant rhetoric; one whose mayor Joe Anderson immediately pledged to remove anti-trans stickers recently posted by a local group opposed to legislation that give trans people the right to self-identification, a city where the far-right English Defence League attempted to march in June 2017 but didn’t even make it into the centre, stopped in their tracks outside Lime Street train station by anti-fascist protestors.
These examples do not tell the full story, as the attack on The List makes clear. In 2012, then UK Home Secretary Theresa May stated that ‘The aim is to create, here in Britain, a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants’, and the effects of that divisive rhetoric continue to be felt in 2018. From the Windrush scandal, which saw British citizens from the Caribbean threatened with – and wrongly – deported, to recent cases of visa applications being refused to visiting authors to Edinburgh International Book Festival and musicians attending the WOMAD music festival. As well as the actions of the UK government, elements of the press also have also demonstrated a particularly virulent brand of anti-migrant rhetoric, such as far-right pundit Katie Hopkins, who in one notable instance compared migrants to ‘cockroaches’ in a 2015 column for The Sun newspaper, and in spite of this, maintained a mainstream media presence as a columnist for Mail Online until late 2017. Liverpool, evidently, is not immune to this toxic brand of bigotry and the likes of Hopkins seem particularly relevant in this instance, as she and The List’s vandals seem to share a total absence of empathy for migrants, even in death.
Cennetoğlu’s decision to leave the half-destroyed artwork on display and not to replace it again, acts as a visual reminder that these things do in fact happen in Liverpool; that nowhere is immune from this kind of hatred and that it may be more commonplace than we are willing to admit. To replace the work yet again would be to ignore the problem, to literally paper over the deplorable acts that occurred. As it is now, the work stands as a monument of shame. It serves as a reminder to confront extremist, anti-immigration views wherever they might be found – on the streets but equally in the halls of government.
Main image: The List, photographed after it was vandalized for the second time, August, 2018. Courtesy: Banu Cennetoğlu